The best engineering fields to enter after graduating college

Before committing to a college education, aspiring engineering students should research the field and take all factors into account to make the best decision about which area of engineering to pursue. The hottest engineering fields include electrical, mechanical, petroleum, and software, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Brandon Hughes is the CEO of Cut & Couple. Courtesy: Brandon HughesThe nation may still be in a period of economic recovery, but it is easy to understand how engineers could forget if they are unwilling to relocate, choose not to adapt and learn, or consider some of the more quickly growing engineering disciplines. Engineering careers consistently rank high on lists of today's most promising careers. As other industries shed jobs due to rising costs, lower revenues, or merely implementation of more efficient technological measures, engineering fields thrive, having added jobs during the worst of times and continuing to do so.

Although it is common for observers to generalize by referring to engineering as a single profession with rewarding salaries and high job satisfaction, such an inference is misleading. Depending on methods of classification, there are anywhere between 30 and 200 unique engineering fields—and they certainly are not the same.

Before committing to a rigorous, expensive college education, aspiring engineering students should survey the field and take all factors into account before deciding which focus is best for them.

Civil engineering

Undoubtedly the most populated engineering field, civil engineering accounts for roughly 274,000 job positions. Fueling optimism for recent college graduates, the field is expecting to expand its ranks by 21% between 2012 and 2022, according to's analysis: "Civil Engineer: Occupational Outlook and Career Profile," which cited the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics publish in May 2014.

Civil engineers' responsibilities include designing and supervising immense projects such as constructing bridges, highways, water supply systems, dams, and tunnels.

As the nation's existing infrastructure begins to disintegrate, and as regions all over the world continue to modernize, civil engineers should have no shortage of work.

They will be tasked with the challenges of adjusting to population growth, resulting in expanded cities and rural areas, as well as applying technological advancements to previously established infrastructure. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a mean annual wage of $85,640 as well as over $126,290 for the highest 10% of earners.

Petroleum engineering

Aside from currently being the most demanded and highly paid field of engineers, federal government pay data from last year shows petroleum engineers were out-earned only by chief executives and select specialist doctors.

They collect an impressive average salary of $132,320 with potential to earn up to $35,000 and $28,000 from reported bonuses and profit sharing, respectively-all while boasting high job satisfaction from the majority of workers, earning an "A" in that respective category according to a CNN 2012 analysis of the best jobs. The top quarter of earners can expect to bring in between $186,520 and $265,000 a year, while even the lowest 10% of workers claim up to $74,240.

Following a slump in the early 1990s due to lackluster oil demand, growth in the field has been astronomical and is expected to continue at a steady rate. University enrollment in related graduate and postgraduate programs has doubled, responding to an employment of fewer than 9,000 workers in 1997 that has ballooned to 38,500 within 15 years, according to Reuter's 2014 article, "Peak petroleum engineers? Or still time to join the boom," by John Kemp.

In 2012, that number was projected to grow by 26% over the following decade, far outpacing the average for other occupations. Likewise, salary growth has historically outrun that of the entire economy, with 60% growth in the past decade as compared to 25%, also according to Kemp.

Increased employee demand can also be attributed to an aging workforce. The slowdown two decades ago temporarily discouraged aspiring engineers from entering the field. As a result, the average petroleum engineer today is over 43 years of age, and like electrical and aerospace engineers, a quarter of them are over 55.

As these workers retire, there will be even greater demand for replacements in a field that is already growing and poaching aero, computer, nuclear, and chemical engineers, among others. Even as the international community strives to stifle its dependence upon fossil fuels, existing operations are becoming more technically complex, ensuring the need for reliable procedures, advanced petroleum technologies and components, and educated workers.

Electrical engineering

After growing 30% in the past four years, electrical engineering is predicted to have a modest growth rate from 2012 to 2022, creating 12,600 additional jobs for the purpose of adapting to future innovations in electrical technology, according to a Forbes article, "The Most In-Demand (And Aging) Engineering Jobs," Sept. 12, 2014, by Joshua Wright.

What these numbers fail to indicate is that one of every four electrical engineers is age 55 or older, and as they begin to retire, fresh entrants will be sought to fill vacancies. These jobs are here to stay, as their primary duties involve designing electrical equipment and systems needed for architecture, electric power, instrument manufacturing, and aerospace.

Software engineering

Of all engineering fields, software engineers have the most favorable hiring outlook. The need for their expertise will only increase as technology development continues to accelerate. They hold the highest determined entry-level salary at $68,000 per year, leading to a mean annual salary of $104,480. The top 10% earn $150,760, making them some of the highest paid workers in all fields of engineering, according to earnings statistics reported by Michigan Technological University's College of Engineering.

Despite these figures, employers claim there are simply not enough workers to feed the rising global demand. Hardware capabilities are always increasing, granting extra potential to solve society's medical, scientific, and industrial problems. However, to take advantage of these opportunities, software engineers must be available to research, design, develop, and maintain relevant software to be put into use.

Aerospace engineering

Depended upon to design aircraft, spacecraft, satellites, and missiles, aerospace engineers play a critical role in industrial development. Regardless of reports suggesting decreases in government funding for space activity, job numbers are expected to remain stable, growing at a slightly lower rate than the national occupational average.

As with a handful of other engineering fields, these mediocre predictions will eventually be countered by an exodus of workers nearing retirement, as 25% of aerospace engineers are at least 55 years old. Currently, workers can expect to earn a mean average salary of $105,450, growing to $150,680 for the highest 10% of earners-almost identical to that of software engineers, according to Sokanu's survey on the average salaries of aerospace engineers.

Mechanical engineering

As one of the broadest engineering disciplines, mechanical engineers are responsible for designing, developing, building, and testing a wide array of devices such as tools, engines, and machines. They create any number of products from toys to medical implants.

Across all engineering fields, mechanical engineers enjoy the second highest level of work environment satisfaction, according to "The 12 Best Engineering and Information Technology Jobs," a study by CareerCast. They report an average salary of $85,930, and the top 10% claim $123,340 or more. Mechanical engineering carries the second strongest employment count, behind only civil engineering, with 264,000 jobs. Growth has been quite favorable thus far into the decade, adding 21,500 positions since 2010. This high rate is not expected to be sustained in forthcoming years, although the discipline will still add an estimated 11,600 jobs between 2012 and 2022.

- Brandon Hughes is the CEO of Cut & Couple, which offers custom-designed hose assemblies for various applications. Edited by Joy Chang, digital project manager, Control Engineering,  

Key concepts:

  • Engineering jobs consistently rank high on lists of today's most promising careers.
  • There are anywhere between 30 and 200 unique engineering fields, and they certainly are not the same.
  • Before committing to an expensive college education, aspiring engineering students should survey the field before deciding which focus is best for them.

Consider this

Which engineering field are you in or aspiring to be in? Is there a skills gap for that field of engineering?

ONLINE extra 

- See related articles about cultivating leadership in engineering and engaging parents in STEM education below.

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